Lech Walesa, once dismissed by Poland's Communist rulers as "a certain electrician from Gdansk," has emerged as a super-salesman to promote his near-bankrupt homeland.
The leader of the Solidarity trade union is expected to press for concrete support to revive Poland's crippled economy when he meets top Italian politicians and businessmen Friday in the style of a visiting head of state.Fresh from a historic reconciliation with the government that had suppressed his union for more than seven years, Walesa will have talks with Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita, Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti and President Francesco Cossiga. He will also meet top businessmen including Fiat car company chief Gianni Agnelli.
"I am not asking for charity but for cooperation and equal treatment for Poland," Walesa told union leaders Wednesday at the start of his four-day Italian visit.
Poland is grappling with steep inflation and a $38 billion foreign debt but the Solidarity leader said: "We ask you to take a new look at Poland because it looks as though the Stalinist period is coming to an end."
In another salesman-like pitch he urged the West in a speech to diplomats: "There is big business to be done in Poland, and I invite you to do it."
Soon after his last visit to Rome in 1981, Walesa fell victim to martial law and found himself interned in a hunting lodge near the Soviet border for nearly one year.
The man who put him there, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, set the seal on their reconciliation by meeting Walesa on the eve of his Italian trip.
Their meeting, the first for seven years, followed an agreement on a radical reform package earlier this month that ended the Communist Party's monopoly of power.
Walesa has said the reforms re-legalizing Solidarity could launch Poland on the road to democracy -- and he has spoken of himself as a future candidate for state president.
On Thursday, he had an emotional meeting at the Vatican with Polish-born Pope John Paul, whom he hailed as the savior of Solidarity.
"I've had my batteries recharged," Walesa told a reporter after his private audience with the pope. "Now I feel I can lift any weight."
Italian President Cossiga will make an official visit to Poland May 10 to 13 for what is expected to be the first there by a Western head of state since the April 5 accord.